Science Without Barriers

A universe for the vision-impaired, STEM lessons behind bars: Every year, the “Falling Walls Engage” forum honors projects that break new ground in science communications, create role models and networks – and tear down walls between science and society. We are presenting four of the winners.

Sabine Fischer | November 2020
Project „Amanar: Under the same sky“

Science builds bridges: The project “Amanar: Under the same sky” makes it possible that local students explore astronomical phenomena together with children that live in refugee camps.

Anyone who has ever read a scientific article knows that without some prior knowledge, it is often difficult not to drop the ball. Those who haven’t had any exposure to the topic beforehand usually can’t even get beyond the table of contents – even though the ideal is for science to be accessible to everyone. The “Falling Walls Engage” forum therefore focuses on identifying scientific projects that pursue a new approach to communicating science, people who create role models and networks with their vision, and those who tear down walls with their approaches. At the annual World Science Summit, Falling Walls Engage recognizes projects that bring scientific findings into people’s everyday lives. Here we present four of the finalists that take us from the surface of the moon all the way into the depths of Germany’s lakes and rivers.

The universe at your fingertips

The Milky Way with its billions of stars, the gas giant Jupiter, the craters of our moon: Nicolas Bonne and his project “The Tactile Universe” turn things we usually view through a telescope into tangible objects. Using specially developed panels, he conveys celestial phenomena by way of haptic models, giving blind and vision-impaired people access to astronomy.

“Astronomy is a highly visual science, so many people with vision impairments are hesitant to engage in it,” explains Bonne. Furthermore, there is hardly any material in the field not linked to vision – limits that Bonne, who himself is almost completely blind, has encountered time and again during his research. He is now making it easier for other vision-impaired people by making the models he developed as part of the project available free of charge. On top of that, he has also created special workshops for students, which introduce them to astronomy and teach them how to use the models. “What surprised us most was how much many people without vision impairments also enjoy the models,” says Bonne. “They tell us that they feel things they cannot see and are delighted about the new perspective.”

Portrait Nicolas Bonne
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About the Person

Nicolas Bonne has been almost completely blind since childhood, which make his career aspirations as an eight-year-old seem all the more astonishing: “I was obsessed with space and always wanted to become an astronomer.” And that’s exactly what he did. Today he works at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravity at the University of Portsmouth/UK – and is changing the discipline forever with his research and public engagement.

Fishers and researchers in the same boat

Are sustainability and fishing mutually exclusive? Not if you ask Robert Arlinghaus, who developed a strategy for environmentally-friendly and climate-conscious fisheries management. What makes his project special is that instead of theorizing above the heads of the target group, Arlinghaus swapped his office at Berlin’s Humboldt University to conduct his research together with fishers, right where they work.

The project’s approach is based on an uncomfortable realization: “Hardly anybody in the fishing industry has read what we researchers have published in professional journals. So we have produced knowledge that never reached people who work in the field,” explains Arlinghaus. Consequently, his project – “Co-production of knowledge with stakeholders for sustainable fisheries” – was designed to create space for ideas on sustainable fisheries management directly with stakeholders in their professional environment. The anticipated disagreements about the project content failed to materialize: “Many fishers are also conservationists. We have only encouraged them to continue thinking further along these lines in their work,” comments Arlinghaus. Together with the fisheries, the research team evaluated data and gained a new, practical perspective on their research. In addition, the project team produced material specifically tailored to the target group: comics, blogs, workshops, and orientation events designed to convey knowledge and strengthen cohesion.

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About the Person

Robert Arlinghaus realized early on that he was not a particularly good fisher. But in the end, his fascination for the profession and the challenges of fishing led him knee-deep into the water anyway: A professor in integrative fisheries management at Berlin’s Humboldt University, he initiated the project “Co-production of knowledge with stakeholders for sustainable fisheries”, taking a tangible step closer to his dream of fishing.

Natural scientists behind bars

As a rule, inmates don’t have a lot to do with the STEM disciplines. In Scotland, however, they do: Mhairi Stewart with her project “Cell Block Science” regularly sends scientists to six prisons.

“So far, STEM subjects have been almost totally neglected in educational centers at prisons,” says Mhairi Stewart. Firstly, science teaching sometimes requires hazardous materials, which are not easily allowed to be brought into prisons. And secondly, the disciplines were simply considered too difficult and complicated. For “Cell Block Science”, Stewart faced these challenges together with those responsible – and had a surprise. “We were overwhelmed by how curious and enthusiastic the participants were about our courses,” she says. Individual learning units were used to introduce inmates to scientific topics – new ground, and not just for the prisoners: Stewart’s approach also posed challenges for the scientists, many of whom had not been exposed to a marginalized audience before. In the future, Stewart would like to extend the project to other prisons in Europe.

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About the Person

As a child, Mhairi Stewart wanted to become a storyteller, and in a way, that’s what she is today. Only that her stories are not fiction. Mhairi Stewart is head of the Department of Public Engagement at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, a role in which she communicates scientific findings to the general public.

Astronomy in refugee camps

From the Western Sahara to the Canary Islands, from the refugee camp to the everyday life of Spanish families: “Amanar: Under the same sky” is a project that promotes the intercultural exchange between the nomadic people of the Saharawi and Spanish students. The goal: to open up perspectives, bridge gaps, and raise curiosity for astronomy in both groups.

The Saharawi people have been on the run for almost 30 years. Around 160,000 members of the Muslim nomadic community now live in refugee camps near the Algerian city of Tindouf – a provisional arrangement that has long since turned permanent. “The schools there hardly have any teaching materials. There is no infrastructure that offers children future prospects,” explains Sandra Benitez Herrera, representative of the “Amanar: Under the same sky” project initiated by Galileo Mobile, an educational organization. To draw attention to their situation, the project team took children from the camps to the Canary Islands. Science became the key to intercultural understanding: Together with local students, they explored astronomical phenomena. In a second step, scientists and Spanish students traveled to the refugee camps, where special programs have been set up to get people interested in astronomy – successfully so.

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About the Person

Sandra Benitez Herrera is an astrophysicist and member of Galileo Mobile, an international non-profit organization that focuses on imparting knowledge where people are normally denied access to education. As a girl, Herrera spent hours with her father in her parents’ backyard looking for shooting stars; today she shares the phenomena of the night sky with people in difficult situations.